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Fitting A Brand Into Its Culture

March 18, 2019

A brand must operate within its cultureNot talking about corporate culture here. Not talking about brands being cultured, as in “Lah-di-dah. What a boring art show. I think I’ll have another canapé.”, either. No, I’m talking about the culture at large, which still is localized at different places around the world. American culture is not British culture is not French culture is not Chinese culture. And even those very distinct cultures can break down into smaller sub-segments. But with all those cultures that global brands have to take into consideration, there’s another trend moving in the opposite direction. And that is that all these cultures are blending too. Populations are moving in all directions. Cultures are mixing, influencing one another. There’s a restaurant in Los Angeles that advertises its Vietnamese/Salvadoran cuisine. In the US, we feel that immigration gives us strength. That’s been our history, anyway. But in Europe, cultural integration is a more difficult process. The jury is still out on whether that can be satisfactorily resolved. But what does it all mean for your efforts to run a business and make a living? What does it mean for your brand?

First of all, here’s an innovative thought: If you have a website, you’re already global. You may only be selling lawn mowing services to your immediate neighborhood. But that won’t stop someone in Nepal from visiting your site and forming an opinion about you. Odds are that person won’t care too much about you one way or the other. But, if she did, she could set off a viral superstorm that could change your life. So every brand, these days, has to think about what it means, not just to its direct customers, but to everyone else in the whole wide world.

David Lazarus is a very good business columnist who writes for the Los Angeles Times. I always appreciate his take on things. But on October 9, 2018, he wrote an unfortunate piece entitled, “Let's stop pretending that corporations have any 'values' beyond making money”. The headline pretty much says it all. Short version: Corporations are not people. They can’t have values. So the idea of corporations showcasing their values in addition to making money is nonsensical on its face. Everybody agrees with him up to this point. But it’s what he left out that disappointed me. I was tempted to send him a rebuttal but I was busy and so just let it drop. But he must have gotten a lot of negative feedback from others because on December 7, 2018, he wrote another column, “Corporations are not people too. Seriously, don't kid yourself” that retracted a lot of what he wrote in the first piece. So let’s give Mr. Lazarus a break. He made a mistake, like we all do. But he quickly corrected himself and it’s clear he’s educating himself. I’m still a fan.

Yes, corporations are soulless on-paper-only entities designed to rake in the cash like ravenous machines. But that is not their sole purpose. In some respects, it’s not even their primary purpose. Corporations really exist as legal constructs to protect their owners from personal liability. Should their businesses run afoul of the law, or go bankrupt or get into trouble in any other sort of way, it’s that corporate filing that protects the business owners. That’s why nobody ever goes to jail no matter how egregious the corporate act. (Hey, I didn’t defraud the old folks home, my corporation did it.) But that’s a debate for another time. Here’s where Lazarus, and his primary source Ian Maitland, missed the mark.

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Yes, corporations exist to make money. But that means they have to engage in selling to people. Even a B2B entity, when selling to other corporations, is really selling to the people in those corporations. You can’t sell unless you engage the markets. And that means you have to build relationships with the markets – with the people in those markets. Those relationships, those shared understandings, are what we call brands. 

The corporation determines its brand promise. Then it makes and keeps that brand promise consistently, over time, without fail. With appreciation for that consistent benefit, the market gradually rewards the corporation with its most coveted prize – brand loyalty. The one-time sale becomes repeat business. The marketable asset and the market have formed a shared relationship. The strength and the value of the brand grows in the covenant. It takes both parties to “make” the brand. So, of course, shared values are important. They provide the context in which the relationship exists. The more values are shared, the more comfortable is the “home” in which the relationship grows. The more comfortable the home, the stronger the brand.

In his second article, Lazarus rightly points to the case of Nike back in the 80s. When the market discovered that Nike was exploiting child labor in sweat shops, it became uncomfortably distasteful for people to wear the shoes in public. Running afoul of its markets’ values, Nike put its entire business at risk. Clearly, making money at any cost proved to be counterproductive to this corporation. To its credit, Nike quickly addressed the problem, became a leader in eradicating child and sweat labor, and saved its brand.

A more current and interesting example is Sea World. There’s a corporation that is making drastic adjustments to its core business model in an attempt to keep up with its market’s changing values. We don’t know yet if Sea World will survive but we do know they’d go belly up for sure if they stubbornly clung to the trained whale shows while their market continued to recoil from them.

Presumably, its possible to sell Confederate flags while simultaneously despising everything they stand for. But that’s going to be a very weak brand and a very shaky business. In contrast, when Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia takes a personal stand and puts his company on the line for an issue like environmental protection, that reverberates throughout his market. It drives awareness, demand and, ultimately, revenue. “Making money” and “holding values” are not antithetical. In today’s world, they are co-dependent.

Why is this issue emerging now? Why did no one ever bring up corporate values back when Henry Ford was getting started or John Paul Getty was striking oil? Because we’re all super-connected now. As mentioned, one person in Nepal can start a worldwide movement … to claim a new human right, to change a government, or to boycott your brand. If, in 2019, you’re ready to incorporate innovation into your business, you’d do well to think about your corporate values. Do they match up with the values of your market? What would it take to get in alignment? See related article in sidebar.


Best Branding Reads – Week of March 18, 2019

It's Time for Company Values to Be More Than a Marketing Pitch
“Making money” and “holding values” are not antithetical. In today’s world, they are co-dependent. 

New Realities Test How Brands Are Managed
“The realities of brand management today point to the ultimate paradox; brands must change to stay consistent.”

How To Use B2C Tactics To Drive B2B Reach And Engagement
More and more, I’m coming to believe that standard branding strategies are even more effective in the B2B world.

How Brands Benefit From Network Effects
An interesting perspective on how to target your messaging.

Visual identity system for Abad
Very cool identity that plays off the furniture designer’s process

These kids designed their own targeted ads, and they’re hilarious
Hilarious overstates it but they’re still fun. Will creating targeted ads become a skill set for everyone?

Porsche Is Giving Their Dealerships the 'Disneyland' Treatment, and It's a Great Lesson in Adapting to Consumer Trends
Definitely checking this out next time I’m in Palm Springs!

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Gen Z Doesn’t Want To Buy Your Brand, They Want To Join It.
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